Saturday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time (Year 1) | August 31, 2019
I live in the Washington, D.C. area. Some months ago, I had a chance to visit the newest one – the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is a remarkable and beautiful place which tells of the history of African Americans in the U.S. and their contributions to our nation. It is also a place where the pain of a people and their history is on full display – much of it a product of slavery.
In fact, in the museum, I saw a “slave bible” which featured a version of the bible from which all metaphors and images and stories about slaves achieving freedom were systematically removed from the text – lest slaves get the idea that they, too, could be free.
Today’s Gospel reading is a story of Jesus, about a master and his “servants.” But the Greek word doulous really means “slave.” So, this is a story about a master and his slaves. And it is an upsetting one! Why does Jesus use the image of a master taking advantage of a servant who lived in fear of the master? The slave seems to have good reason to do so; the master is not a good person! The master calls the slave ‘useless’ and throws him out of his house!
Now, we might interpret this story – as many have rightly done for centuries – as a moral reminder that God gives us many precious gifts and expects us to be industrious and put those gifts to good use for the good of others – as the first two slaves in the story do. We can also interpret the story of the third slave as cautionary of not hiding our gifts or being afraid to use them. And all that is true.
But after visiting the National African American Museum, and knowing the reality of slaves not just in our nation’s past but around the globe for centuries, I can no longer ignore those complex histories of interpretation and the use of these texts – or sometimes denial of those texts to slaves – as in the “slave bible.” I also can’t forget how some have used this story to portray God like a harsh, or even heartless, master.
It is the hard work of those who preach God’s Word, who teach it, and those who study it to be mindful of these things – and it is a caution to any of us who would maintain a fundamentalistic view that the meaning of the Bible’s text is always and immediately perfectly clear. Catholic interpretation of the Bible reminds us that there are always many levels of interpretation to any passage of Scripture and that its proper understanding must be firmly rooted in a careful historical analysis of its meanings and a recognition that not all parts of the Scriptures are meant to be taken as a model for behavior today. In a time when people often interpret the Bible in individualistic terms, it is a good reminder that its truth is often best disclosed in a community of interpretation – which is precisely how the Catholic Church understands it!
Jesus used an image from his time, as he often did, to teach important lessons – and many times he confounded people’s expectations in the story by giving them a twist. And because the Bible is also the Word of God, we recognize those stories can speak to us always newly and fresh and give us a new ‘twist’ that hadn’t been considered. The parable of the master and his slaves – seen from our vantage point in history – could speak to us anew about injustice in relationships and unfair treatment – a warning that the God whom Jesus preached is so much better than the wicked master.
This parable is in the section of Matthew’s Gospel that deals with divine judgment. And the psalmist tells us the God is coming to rule the world, and to rule it with justice. Perhaps today, Jesus is inviting us to hear the story of the master and his slaves as a caution, and as precisely not how God wishes to deal with us, and that God would rather invite us to cherish each person, to give them guidance when they fail, and to bring forth God’s justice in the doing of justice in our world.
Or to put it better – as St. Paul does in the first reading: “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.”
God give you peace!
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As Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I have the opportunity to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.